Last night, browsing through a used book store in my dream, I came upon a small cardboard box. I lifted the lid: it contains a stack of loose sheets of paper, maybe 2 by 3.5 inches, each with a small portion of text printed on it. The upper right corner of each sheet is stamped with a different time of day — hour, minute, second — but no date. It’s clear that this is a loose-leaf book, to be read sequentially at the specified time. Evidently reading the book in the prescribed manner has ritualistic import.
A few posts back I wrote a kind of fan fiction inspired by Salvatore Difalco’s short story “Relapse.” If I were still putting up “Flânerie” posts, “Relapse” would have been excerpted under the label “Intersection” in the multifaceted, pluripotent, infinitely extensible fictiCity where all fictions take place. It got me thinking about possible intersection fictions that might transpire here in Durham NC where I live. Such a fiction needn’t be shackled to the actual here-and-now Durham; it could be a there-and-then variant. In exploring this fictional space I came up with a kind of story stub, a situation that could be elaborated into a full-blown story. Here it is:
* * *
We got bogged down in the usual southbound traffic, the mall being a bigger draw than ever, maybe because everybody knew its days were numbered. The car eased into the left lane, signal flashing on the console. “Turning left from Fayetteville onto 54,” the car informed me. “Expected arrival at the clinic in one minute – ten minutes early for your appointment.” I made a mental note to bump up my satisfaction rating a notch. “You have time for a coffee if you like.”
“The coffee shop is still open?”
“Yes sir; it’s been relocated to the second story.”
“So that means whatever used to be up there is closed…”
“A realty office.”
That made sense. Plenty of sellers but no buyers, the houses worth less than their mortgages. Underwater. “No, that’s fine, just drop me at the side entrance.”
“The concierge entrance – very good, sir.”
The light changed and we waited for the foot traffic to clear – pack-laden people shuttling between the bus stop and the homeless camp that had sprouted up in the woods behind the gas station. There on the left the clinic loomed. Built on a low-lying area next to Crooked Creek, the massive structure now surmounted its own private island like a medieval castle. Or a cathedral, its moat encircling also the pilgrims’ tent village strewn haphazardly across the roof of the parking garage. Makeshift wooden walkways spanning the now-saturated grounds looked like those old photos of St. Mark’s Square before Venice went under for good. Barricades blocked the road just past the clinic entrance; up ahead the creek, an engineered runoff designed to carry not much more than a trickle, surged left to right across 54, the I-40 overpass barely clearing the flow. Trees blocked the longer view of the salt marsh encroaching on the city, lapping at the front doors of the nursing home and the tire store and the Asian market. A mile or two farther east the office buildings and the condo complexes, the strip malls and restaurants stood half-submerged and abandoned, with kids on jet skis slaloming between stilted derrick rigs hauling sodden scoops of salvage onto barges parallel-parked along route 55.
* * *
The roads, the creek, the homeless camp, the clinic and garage: they’re all part of the here-and-now Durham, less than a mile from where I’m sitting. The ocean? At present the coastline is 200 miles east of here. So the story stub takes shape in a kind of an apocalyptic overlay.
I wonder about the possibility of a bunch of intersection stories. Maybe I’d write them all, each of them overlaid on some actual Durham location. Maybe a cadre of Durham writers could be gathered, each writing a story about a different intersection in town and compiling them all into a choral prophesy or farce — call it Dürmopolis, or Dürmscrawl. Maybe it would be a cadre of writers scattered around the world, writing about intersections in the towns where they live, all of those geographically scattered intersections mapped onto the same imaginary fictiCity…
Backstory: Last November I launched Ficticities by issuing an invitation:
Enter a collaborative laboratory where fictions are transformed from commodities into cultural resources, from entertaining distractions into worlds that extend their borders widely and freely in the collective imagination; where readers and writers build an alternate fictional multiverse together. The Experimental Agenda: Readers and writers collaborate in designing, building, and testing prototypes for an alternative postcapitalist fictional reality.
I put up a series of posts exploring the design space for forming an anarcho-collective alternative to traditional publishing and self-publishing, with writers organizing themselves into publishing houses and distributing their e-books through reader-run duplicating libraries. I expected these posts to stimulate interest and discussion among fiction writers, leading toward the launch of a few demonstration projects. Unfortunately, those posts mostly rattled around in a solipsistic echo chamber, so I took them all down and regrouped.
On to Phase Two. The plan was to conduct surveys assessing fiction writers’ opinions about two central questions: (1) Could writers and readers of fiction jointly run an open access e-book publishing house of distinction? (2) Would they want to? In order to attract writers to the site, and thereby to answering the survey questions, I would read and link to short fictions published in online literary journals.
On 18 March I put up the first survey, designed to evaluate why fiction writers write fiction. I then wrote posts linking to 57 short fictions in an effort to recruit respondents. The Google Forms online survey technology worked nicely: respondents’ results were recorded (anonymously) and aggregated on a dedicated file, making analysis easy. However, the method for recruiting respondents sucked. Few of the linked writers clicked through to the Ficticities site, and even fewer completed the survey. Four people completed the survey, one of whom was me. I don’t know how many of the other three were authors of short fictions linked on the website.
There’s not much point in running statistical analyses on such a small sample. However, to the extent that those four respondents reflect any sort of consensus, some very tentative conclusions can be drawn:
Fiction writers want to interpret the world, to imagine and create, to make an impact on the world, and to have people read what they write. Self-expression is less important.
Fiction writers write for its own sake. It’s also fairly important for them to master the craft and to be regarded as good writers by other writers, by publishers, and by critics.
Making a living from writing fictions isn’t a particularly strong motivator, either directly through selling stories/books or indirectly in padding résumés for jobs as academicians or editors. It’s more likely that writers take those paying jobs in order to support their fiction-writing habits.
Survey questions addressing identity issues — self-expression, thinking of oneself as a writer, associating with like-minded people — were deemed less important. However, the two respondents (I wasn’t one of them) who answered the fill-in-the-blank question at the end of the survey — What is the main reason you write fiction? — emphasized aspects of self:
expression of my freedom
It’s fun. It’s challenging, and it gives me a great sense of accomplishment. The main reason that I write fiction, though, is because I have ideas that intrigue me and I can’t not turn them into stories.
Results, though scant, are intriguing; plenty more questions could be posed that would shed light on the postcapitalist publishing agenda. And the online litmags do provide ready access to lots of fiction writers. The challenge is to lure those writers more effectively to the website and to the surveys.
For the first survey I cited recently published short stories, relying on the stories’ authors googling themselves and clicking over here to Ficticities, then clicking again onto the survey. That didn’t work. I would need to track down the authors’ email addresses or websites or Twitter accounts, letting them know about this website and specifically inviting them to complete a survey. It’s not easy to find online contact information even for published short fiction writers, so no doubt I’d miss a significant percentage of eligible respondents. Still, if I could reach half of the story authors it’d be a worthwhile tactic.
Do I need to read and comment on and link all of these stories in order to establish my credibility and to attract the authors’ attention? Or could I just send them emails; e.g.:
Dear So-and-So: I saw your story in the recent issue of X Magazine. I’m conducting a survey of fiction writers and would like to invite you to participate.
I could embed the survey right in the email; alternatively, I could put a link to the survey posted here at Ficticities. I’d establish a deadline for responding — let’s say 2 weeks — after which I’d post the findings here on the website and roll out the next survey, notifying the invitees by email. Then I’d do another fresh wave of emails to new authors. Hopefully writers find the survey questions and answers intriguing, luring many of them back to fill out multiple surveys and thus amping up the response rates. This rolling process of enrolling survey respondents would also build up a reservoir of possible participants in demonstration projects suggested by the survey findings.
Questions, comments, suggestions?
[Another Difalco fanfic, this one a riff on his story “Relapse”]
A drunk driver careens through a busy intersection. You, a fiction writer, are standing some distance off, next to a lever. You have two options: (1) Pull the lever to the left, and the runaway car crashes into a second car, killing both drivers. (2) Pull the lever to the right, and the runaway car crashes into a pedestrian: the pedestrian dies, but the driver of the runaway car survives.
The driver of the second car is:
(a) a middle-aged man;
(b) a recovering opioid addict, on the wagon for six months;
(c) a heavy drinker when under stress, though sober as he drives through the intersection;
(d) a drug mule, transporting a sizeable quantity of hashish in his car for delivery to his connection.
The pedestrian is:
(a) a young woman;
(b) a recent immigrant from Guatemala;
(c) the mother of three small children;
(d) accompanied by one of her children as she walks through the intersection — the child will witness her death if she is struck by the careening car.
Which lever will you pull?
In my cahier entry for this morning I was revisiting ways of engaging short fictional texts and their authors:
Evaluating their ficticities seems reasonable, but is it? Highlight textual features that disrupt reality-as-actualized, then email authors.
Can I do it? Would I want to do it? Let’s give it a try. I click onto the Poets and Writers online listing of literary journals, randomly select a letter of the alphabet, pick off the first litmag listed under that letter, click the most recent issue, look at the Fictions listed for that issue, and — what are the odds? — it’s another story by Salvatore Difalco!
Of the 57 stories I excerpted on this site during my Flâneries phase, Salvatore Difalco is the only author to have commented here. Two posts ago I wrote a kind of fan fiction mediated by that Difalco story. The synchronicity of stumbling on another of his stories proved inescapable.
* * *
I was already running late, the first sentence reads. Already means you’re ahead of time, and besides that you’re running, putting even more distance between yourself and the now. But then late. Time out of joint. Early on the story is punctuated with time stamps: at noon, ten minutes, just as in just a few minutes ago. There are verbs of movement — running, sped — juxtaposed with verbs of stasis — stood, waiting. And also wanted, twice: the engine of desire stroking between speed and stasis, between running and late.
The narrator is a drug courier, a recovering addict — oxycontin: an opiate, a slow-down substance. Now when he’s stressed, instead of popping pills he guzzles the booze.
…And so on. But it’s not a deep reading or thematic interpretation I’m after here. I’m looking for ways in which this fiction throws a wrench into the actually existing world in which the story unfolds, revealing in the process how the fictional overlays the material in constructing generally accepted realities.
The event: a red-faced driver caroms his BMW off a truck; our narrator accelerates through the intersection quickly enough to avoid getting hit; the BMW, its path unimpeded, slams into a young mother of three, killing her. So, survivor guilt: it could just as easily have been him instead of the woman but for his right foot twitch reflex. At the same time, he could just as easily have been the red-faced drunk behind the wheel of the deathmobile. He revisits the scene of the accident, notices a stain on the pavement. Motor oil? Blood?
A few uneasy days passed. Your problems really begin only when you start thinking about them.
Relapsed, the narrator can’t make himself go through with his next courier assignment. He drives back to the fatal intersection again, gets out of the car for a closer look. That night he can’t sleep, the red-faced drunk driver staring at him. He gets back in his car, goes back to the intersection, parks.
When I saw the coast was clear I kneeled down, lowered my face to the stain and sniffed it. I shut my eyes and sniffed it, hoping to discern or dispel I don’t know what.
The accident happened: it’s in the past, no longer part of the world. The accident may for our narrator portend two alternative futures: stay off the drugs, keep drinking, wind up shit-faced behind the wheel of a death car; pop the pills, quit the drug-running business, enrage the mob boss, wind up as road kill. Neither of those futures is here yet; they may never arrive. But the accident isn’t just past, isn’t just future: it’s here and now, keeps coming back, keeps drawing the witness back to itself, the eternal return of a bivalent portal — you are the Killer, you are the Killed. An irruption into the actual of the timeless Real.
* * *
then email author, says my cahier entry. Maybe tomorrow.
Skip Fox’s “Sortilege” was the first short fiction I excerpted in the Flânerie series. I found it, as I found the others, through a sortilege procedure of my own, so it’s understandable that I would have regarded the story as a talisman endorsing my undertaking. Not only that, but the substance of the story jibed perfectly with the motivation for my project. The day I read “Sortilege” — January 21, the winter solstice, a portentious date if ever there was one — I tracked down the author’s email address to notify him of my intent. I also sent him an excerpt from something I’d written that complemented his text. (Four years ago I posted an earlier, somewhat extended version of it on my old blog as “Untitled Revenge Fantasy Fragment.”)
Later that day I received a reply: Skip Fox liked my piece, granting me carte blanche to use his story however I liked. A lively extended correspondence has ensued.
Though the sample size is admittedly small, I’ve found that fiction writers do tend to respond to emails asking them about or commenting on their work. Problem is, it’s not always easy to track down their email addresses. I was able to correspond with Skip Fox, and a dozen years earlier with Robert Coover and DF Wallace, because they held positions at academic institutions that publish all faculty email addresses on their websites.
Please answer Yes or No to the following questions. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers.
1. Does the man whose two front teeth were extracted overnight have any reason to suspect the demented man living upstairs of having been the perpetrator?
2. If the demented man is in fact responsible for committing this indecency on his downstairs neighbor, would he remember having done so?
3. In performing the operation would he have used his pocket comb, an instrument that as the dementia extends its reach has proven more pluripotent than a Swiss Army knife, functioning equally well as a car key and as a telephone for conversing with his long-dead mother?
4. During prep did the comb-wielding surgeon administer one of those newfangled anesthetics in which the patient remains conscious throughout the procedure but loses all memory of its having been performed?
5. Has our ambulatory surgeon become a vector of forgetfulness, on his rounds through the boardinghouse infecting/blessing all of the residents with his malady/gift?
6. Has the surgeon healed himself, having extracted his own teeth but in his deluded postoperative state confusing himself with his downstairs neighbor?
7. Is the rooming house the surgeon’s memory palace, a method of loci for visualizing past events devised and practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, its rooms crumbling now, their contents scrambling into disarray, conflating that day more than seventy years ago when he placed his still-bloody two front teeth, knocked out of their shallow sockets by the opposing shortstop’s knee sliding (safely!) into second base, under his pillow in accord with accepted Tooth Fairy protocol with the present state of his old-man teeth, deteriorating along with the rest of him?
8. Preserving teeth in a glass of milk and then drinking it — is this not another scene from the memory palace, a childhood reminder of enamel-strengthening oral hygiene reenacted now in degraded form, the reinforced but uprooted teeth having lodged themselves in the throat, necessitating their second removal?
9. As the surgeon descends toward the kitchen, his long white hair trailing behind him like a veil, followed in turn by his toothless patient, is the memory palace not attempting to reveal to the patient the truth that he is himself the surgeon, their convergent identity veiled by the dementia enshrouding his brain?
10. If tonight the demented old man were to go to sleep for the last time, would his tombstone record the date of his death as today, when the night manager of the nursing home feels for his pulse and breath but comes up empty, or tomorrow, when in the predawn hours the hospice nurse arrives at the facility and confirms the manager’s diagnosis, sending for the morticians to take him away?
11. On what basis would the old man’s son, being informed by the mortician that he could choose the date to be recorded on the Certificate, render his decision?
12. Would the son subsequently, and too late, wonder whether he had chosen wisely but not shrewdly?
13. Does the old man’s memory palace survive him somewhere, perhaps in a storage room at the nursing home, perhaps in the columbarium where his cremains await the resurrection, perhaps in a niche in a chamber in the son’s memory palace?
14. Without looking, do you remember question 1?